Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Most of it is just noise

From The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Page 13.
Meanwhile, if the quantity of information is increasing by 2.5 quintillion bytes per day, the amount of useful information almost certainly isn't. Most of it is just noise, and the noise is increasing faster than the signal. There are so many hypotheses to test, so many data sets to mine - but a relatively constant amount of objective truth.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

When they fail they fail badly

From The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Page 13.
Complex systems like the World Wide Web have this property. They may not fail as often as simpler ones, but when they fail they fail badly. Capitalism and the Internet, both of which are incredibly efficient at propagating information, create the potential for bad ideas as well as goods ones to spread.

Monday, October 29, 2012

3 terabytes

From The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Page 12.
The human brain is quite remarkable; it can store perhaps three terabytes of information. And yet that is only about one one-millionth of the information that IBM says is now produced in the world each day. So we have to be terribly selective about the information we choose to remember.
The source for the information is from IBM.
What is big data?
Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data — so much that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. This data comes from everywhere: sensors used to gather climate information, posts to social media sites, digital pictures and videos, purchase transaction records, and cell phone GPS signals to name a few. This data is big data.
And from Robert Birge in Human Brain.
The typical adult human brain weighs about 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms). It contains several billion neurons connected at a hundred trillion synapses. The male brain is bigger; typically 1,300–1,500 cubic centimeters while the female's is typically 1,200–1,350 cubic centimeters. Volume, however, is not necessarily a figure of merit. Neanderthals had very large brains. Whales and dolphins have bigger brains than humans.

Robert Birge (Syracuse University) who studies the storage of data in proteins, estimated in 1996 that the memory capacity of the brain was between one and ten terabytes, with a most likely value of 3 terabytes. Such estimates are generally based on counting neurons and assuming each neuron holds 1 bit. Bear in mind that the brain has better algorithms for compressing certain types of information than computers do.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

I was astounded that the effect was so large

From The Marshmallow Study Revisited by Susan Hagen.

The original study, as the article indicates, established that the behavioral trait of self-control is strongly predicitive of life success and that to a significant degree, self-control at such a young age is an innate condition.

In this permutation of the classic experiment, what they have shown is that environmental circumstances also influence the actions of the child.
The Rochester team wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable. The study results were so strong that a larger sample group was not required to ensure statistical accuracy and other factors, like the influence of hunger, were accounted for by randomly assigning participants to the two groups, according to the researchers. In both groups the children were given a create-your-own-cup kit and asked to decorate the blank paper that would be inserted in the cup.

In the unreliable condition, the children were provided a container of used crayons and told that if they could wait, the researcher would return shortly with a bigger and better set of new art supplies for their project. After two and a half minutes, the research returned with this explanation: "I'm sorry, but I made a mistake. We don't have any other art supplies after all. But why don't you use these instead?" She then helped to open the crayon container.

Next a quarter-inch sticker was placed on the table and the child was told that if he or she could wait, the researcher would return with a large selection of better stickers to use. After the same wait, the researcher again returned empty handed.

The reliable group experienced the same set up, but the researcher returned with the promised materials: first with a rotating tray full of art supplies and the next time with five to seven large, die-cut stickers.
Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

"I was astounded that the effect was so large," says Aslin. "I thought that we might get a difference of maybe a minute or so… You don't see effects like this very often."

In prior research, children's wait time averaged between 6.08 and 5.71 minutes, the authors report. By comparison, manipulating the environment doubled wait times in the reliable condition and halved the time in the unreliable scenario. Previous studies that explored the effect of teaching children waiting strategies showed smaller effects, the authors report. Hiding the treat from view boosted wait times by 3.75 minutes, while encouraging children to think about the larger reward added 2.53 minutes.
The article focuses on this as being a nature versus nurture issue but I think that is the wrong formulation. I think about this sort of thing in terms of productivity. What conditions favor greater productivity? What this experiment seems to indicate is that 1) Innate self-control is significantly predictive (we knew that already), 2) that teaching habits of self-control can help increase productivity but only in the context of a stable system.

It seems to me that a corolary lesson of this experiment is a powerful endorsement for predictability (i.e. rule of law, systems constrained by checks and balances, etc.). Where there is high predictability, it rewards self-control and therefore more self-control is exercised. The more self-control exercised, the greater the opportunity for investment, experimentation, etc.

Recognizing objects in difficult situations means generalizing

A massive amount of single source quoting about to begin. I have been reading Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise. A lot of good information brought together in a single place. Well written and sourced. New ideas and some with which I disagree but so well presented that it forces me to revisit my own position. I love this type of book.
Biologically, we are not very different from our ancestors. But some stone-age strengths have become information-age weaknesses.

Human beings do not have very many natural defenses. We are not all that fast, and we are not all that strong. We do not have claws or fangs or body armor. We cannot spit venom. We cannot camouflage ourselves. And we cannot fly. Instead, we have to survive by means of our wits. Our minds are quick. We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without much hesitation.

"This need of finding patterns, humans have this more than any other animals," I was told by Tomas Poggio, an MIT neuroscientist who studies how our brains process information. "Recognizing objects in difficult situations means generalizing. A newborn baby can recognize the basic pattern of a face. It has been learned by evolution, not by the individual."

The problem, Poggio says, is that these evolutionary instincts sometimes lead us to see patterns when there are none there. "People have been doing that all the time," Poggio said. "Finding patterns in random noise."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Situations matter most

Prompted by David Brooks essay, What Moderation Means.

He makes the comment that:
The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most.
While true, I would recast this somewhat. A moderate and an ideologist might share a common goal but the moderate pursues the goal within a context to which he remains responsive whereas the ideologist simply pursues the goal.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The best way to degrade a civilization

Jacques Barzun, whome I have excerpted a number of times over the years, passed away yesterday at 104. From A Jacques Barzun Reader.
In a high civilization the things that satisfy our innumerable desires look as if they were supplied automatically, mechanically, so that nothing is owed to particular persons; goods belong by congenital right to anybody who takes the trouble to be born. This is the infant's normal greed prolonged into adult life and headed for retribution. When sufficiently general, the habit of grabbing, cheating, and evading reciprocity is the best way to degrade a civilization, and perhaps bring about its collapse.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I wish I loved the Human Race

There are days when I share this sentiment.
"Wishes of an Elderly Man, Wished at a Garden Party, June 1914"
by Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh

I wish I loved the Human Race.
I wish I loved its silly face
I wish I liked the way it walks,
I wish I liked the way it talks,
And when I'm introduced to one,
I wish I thought, What jolly fun!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The sensation of breathing a different air

George Orwell in his essay, England Your England

When you come back to England from any foreign country, you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air. Even in the first few minutes dozens of small things conspire to give you this feeling. The beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier, the grass is greener, the advertisements are more blatant. The crowds in the big towns, with their mild knobby faces, their bad teeth and gentle manners, are different from a European crowd. Then the vastness of England swallows you up, and you lose for a while your feeling that the whole nation has a single identifiable character. Are there really such things as nations? Are we not forty-six million individuals, all different? And the diversity of it, the chaos! The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pintables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn morning – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene. How can one make a pattern out of this muddle?

But talk to foreigners, read foreign books or newspapers, and you are brought back to the same thought. Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillarboxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches in to the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature. What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantlepiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you. However much you hate it or laugh at it, you will never be happy away from it for any length of time. The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side of the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

‘Hamlet’ played as a comedy were nothing to it.

From Self Help by Samuel Smiles.
Mr. Disraeli affords a similar instance of the power of industry and application in working out an eminent public career. His first achievements were, like Bulwer’s, in literature; and he reached success only through a succession of failures. His ‘Wondrous Tale of Alroy’ and ‘Revolutionary Epic’ were laughed at, and regarded as indications of literary lunacy. But he worked on in other directions, and his ‘Coningsby,’ ‘Sybil,’ and ‘Tancred,’ proved the sterling stuff of which he was made. As an orator too, his first appearance in the House of Commons was a failure. It was spoken of as “more screaming than an Adelphi farce.” Though composed in a grand and ambitious strain, every sentence was hailed with “loud laughter.” ‘Hamlet’ played as a comedy were nothing to it. But he concluded with a sentence which embodied a prophecy. Writhing under the laughter with which his studied eloquence had been received, he exclaimed, “I have begun several times many things, and have succeeded in them at last. I shall sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.” The time did come; and how Disraeli succeeded in at length commanding the attention of the first assembly of gentlemen in the world, affords a striking illustration of what energy and determination will do; for Disraeli earned his position by dint of patient industry. He did not, as many young men do, having once failed, retire dejected, to mope and whine in a corner, but diligently set himself to work. He carefully unlearnt his faults, studied the character of his audience, practised sedulously the art of speech, and industriously filled his mind with the elements of parliamentary knowledge. He worked patiently for success; and it came, but slowly: then the House laughed with him, instead of at him. The recollection of his early failure was effaced, and by general consent he was at length admitted to be one of the most finished and effective of parliamentary speakers.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where endless conjectures supply the defect of unattainable knowledge

From Lord Chesterfield, Letter XCIV in Chesterfield's Letters to His Son. Describing the researches of Lord Bolingbroke.
The common bounds of human knowledge are too narrow for his warm and aspiring imagination. He must go 'extra flammantia maenia Mundi', and explore the unknown and unknowable regions of metaphysics; which open an unbounded field for the excursion of an ardent imagination; where endless conjectures supply the defect of unattainable knowledge
Where the frontier of facts stops, it is worthwhile but dangerous to explore the wilderness of conjectures.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Admiral of the Ocean Sea

From Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus by Samuel Eliot Morison.
At the end of 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune and lifeless. Institutions were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through studying the pagan past. . . .

Yet, even as the chroniclers of Nuremberg were correcting their proofs from Koberger’s press, a Spanish caravel named Nina scudded before a winter gale into Lisbon with news of a discovery that was to give old Europe another chance. In a few years we find the mental picture completely changed. Strong monarchs are stamping out privy conspiracy and rebellion; the Church, purged and chastened by the Protestant Reformation, puts her house in order; new ideas flare up throughout Italy, France, Germany and the northern nations; faith in God revives and the human spirit is renewed. The change is complete and startling: “A new envisagement of the world has begun, and men are no longer sighing after the imaginary golden age that lay in the distant past, but speculating as to the golden age that might possibly lie in the oncoming future.”

Christopher Columbus belonged to an age that was past, yet he became the sign and symbol of this new age of hope, glory and accomplishment. His medieval faith impelled him to a modern solution: Expansion.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm

From Considerable Indiscretions by David Spiller in a review in Slightly Foxed, Autumn 2012.
. . . let us revisit Violet Bonham-Carter, recording her first meeting with the 32-year-old Churchill at a dinner in 1906, nine years before Colville was born. Churchill 'burst forth into an eloquent diatribe on the shortness of human life, the immensity of possible human accomplishments . . . in a torrent of magnificent language . . . and ended up with the words I shall always remember: "We are all worms. But I do believe that I am a glow-worm."'

Saturday, October 13, 2012

People without an organized system of thought will always be at the mercy of those that have one

From a commenter on an article. He put the following in quotes but I can't find a source. None-the-less, the comment speaks for itself.
People without an organized system of thought will always be at the mercy of those that have one.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Damned because its embrace of the good is not quite perfect

Sometimes interesting thoughts come from sources that seem sullied or needlessly confrontational or suffering from some other failing. Such is the case in Victor Davis Hanson's review of a book by Roger L. Simon in A Voice in the Cultural Wilderness. Some contentious assertions that are a source of potentially robust debate include.
In all these pathologies, Kimball sees the common denominator of enforced radical egalitarianism, or the human impulse to make us all the same, which for many trumps the desire for liberty and individualism. To paraphrase Aristotle and Tocqueville, Kimball is appalled at a certain human weakness that expresses itself in a willingness to become enslaved as the price of ensuring equality — as if by nature we value egalitarianism far more than liberty.
In “Institutionalizing Our Demise,” Kimball dissects the contradictions of affirmative action and multiculturalism. There are of course many, but Kimball’s incisive indictment might be best summed up with the irony that those critics who have succeeded through the Western liberal tradition, and the magnanimity of Anglo-Protestant ethical values, are often the most likely to turn around and tear them down — often in worry that they are losing street cred as the supposedly permanently oppressed. America, which alone seeks to establish a meritocracy and a multiracial society united by shared values, is so often damned because its embrace of the good is not quite perfect.
Some of the essays are lighter. Among the best is a review of Conn and Hal Iggulden’s The Dangerous Book for Boys, the recent English bestseller that sought to remind readers that once upon a time boys did and knew certain things to prepare themselves for marrying, raising a family, earning a living, and becoming the once-proverbial good citizen. Rough sports, reading about war heroes, memorizing moral aphorisms — all these may now seem trite. But what replaced them in inculcating manhood? Video games in the parental basement, no-score T-Ball, banning dodge ball, race/class/and gender chanting in grammar school? Kimball is a master of understated irony, and once more the theme of “being careful what you wish for” resonates: if today’s empowered women are frustrated that they cannot find any good men any more, one might reexamine the wages of what hyper-feminist doctrine has wrought in our schools and popular culture.
A single review cannot do justice to this rich collection of essays; but in a brief epilogue to the volume, Kimball seems to sum up of his worldview with homage to the Anglo-American tradition of individualism, skepticism, and self-reliance. And while the forces of collectivism and big-government paternalism have been on the march in the Anglosphere, Kimball sees hope, both in the reaction of the populist Tea Party movement and the popular unease with what Britain has become. I might add as well that the current implosion of the eurozone reminds us that Great Britain still possesses some vestiges of common sense and skepticism not found on the continent.

If the West is the last hope of the endangered planet, then the last hope of the West is the English-speaking peoples who have best resisted the siren songs of utopian totalitarianism that on nearly three occasions in the twentieth century nearly destroyed civilization itself.
I found that list of what we want for boys a catalyst. "Marrying, raising a family, earning a living, and becoming the once-proverbial good citizen" - that sounds roughly right but not complete. What do we want for our young people? Perhaps
* Capable of and effective at self-improvement
* Marriage
* Family
* Net Productivity (produce more than you consume)
* Fully developed potential
* Good person
* Good citizen
Would that be a good outcome? It is worth considering.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The poorer citizens had exhausted their scanty savings

I have mentioned in the past that social hierarchy is simply a means for determining who starves first. In the past dozen decades we have moved sufficiently far from recurring starvation that it is easy to forget that death by starvation was still recently a routine threat because productivity was so low and the capacity of individuals and society to produce a storable surplus was so low.

A reminder comes in John R. Hales' Lords of the Sea, his account of the rise of the Athenian navy. The Athenians are facing the invading Persians. They have already engaged the Persian navy once but have now retreated to Salamis where they await the onslaught of the Persian juggernaut. It is easy to overlook the differences of past and present and overlook the details we take for granted. Themistocles has lead the Athenians over the past three years in their preparations. We remember him for convincing the Athenians to use the money from a newly discovered silver mine to build a navy. We remember his generalship. But in the midst of those strategic issues, he had to look after the critical minor issues as well.
Meanwhile at Salamis, Themistocles faced a new crisis. The common citizens of Athens, the twenty thousand thetes, were running short of money on this, their first campaign on behalf of their city. Themistocles' expanded navy called for the enlistment of all citizens, rich or poor. The horsemen and hoplites were men of means, who could afford to buy their own provisions while on campaign. But after almost a month of naval service the poorer citizens had exhausted their scanty savings. The city had no funds to help them and no stockpiles of food to dole out to relieve the shortfall.
Just imagine a society with insufficient surplus to sustain itself beyond a months' worth of consumption. Such a scenario has slipped beyond our consciousness.

But just because we don't consider such regression possible doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. Tim Cavanaugh has an article, Pictures of Afghanistan in the Fifties and Sixties Are Totally Depressing that highlights such a regression. Pictures of Leopoldville in the old Belgian Congo bring home a similar sense of regression. This isn't to say that the old days were always good or right - only that whatever we value is always a lot more contingent than we think.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

This works until something breaks the spell

The concept of a preference cascade seems to be getting broader discussion. It is a subtle but I believe real phenomenon. It was originally described in 2002 by Glenn Harlan Reynolds in Patriotism and Preferences.
The muting of open patriotism after the Vietnam era may have been a case of what social scientists call "preference falsification": One in which social pressures cause people to express sentiments that differ from those they really feel. As social scientist Timur Kuran noted in his 1995 book Private Truths, Public Lies, there are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, that lead people not to show how they truly feel. People tend to read social signals about what is approved and what is disapproved behavior and, in general, to modify their conduct accordingly. Others then rely on this behavior to draw wrong conclusions about what people think, and allow those conclusions to shape their own actions.
This illustrates, in a mild way, the reason why totalitarian regimes collapse so suddenly. (Click here for a more complex analysis of this and related issues). Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it - but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell, and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers - or even to the citizens themselves. Claims after the fact that many people who seemed like loyal apparatchiks really loathed the regime are often self-serving, of course. But they're also often true: Even if one loathes the regime, few people have the force of will to stage one-man revolutions, and when preferences are sufficiently falsified, each dissident may feel that he or she is the only one, or at least part of a minority too small to make any difference.
This relates to a concept in economics (and I think in sociology/psychology as well), revealed preference. People talk a good game about what they value and what they want. But if you really want to know what they value, look at what they do. There are all sorts of reasons why there is a disconnect between stated intentions and actions and the dynamics behind a preference cascade is one special case of the general truism.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The speech is more unfiltered and more expecting of shared values

From "Why People Are Rude Online” and the Audience for Online Speech by Orin Kerr discussing the differences in writing styles in the virtual environment of the internet.
When you write online, in contrast, you don’t see who is reading what you are writing. The audience is unseen and usually largely unknown. This is just my amateurish speculation, but my guess is that a lot of people have a natural tendency to write by implicitly imagining the kind of audience that would be around them in the physical space where they are writing (even though their actual audience is online). Because those physical spaces can be pretty intimate places, such as a person’s home, a lot of people tend to make online communications that use the kind of language they would use when amongst friends. The speech is more unfiltered and more expecting of shared values. When the audience turns out not to share those values, though, they experience the unfiltered speech as rude — which leads them to respond with similar or even greater rudeness. That’s my amateurish speculation, at least.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Predictability and Adaptability

From No More Quick Fixes by Guy Sorman.
Economists, politicians, and pundits looking for answers to the economic crisis fall into two broad categories. Keynesians and statists argue for more aggressive interventions from governments and central banks. Distrusting the free market’s self-regulating processes, they promote public spending to create jobs and low interest rates to rekindle private investment and consumer spending. Thinkers of the classical-liberal persuasion, by contrast, argue that no quick fix can bring the economy out of its doldrums; only when the rules of capitalism appear stable and predictable again will markets revive. Put another way: Keynesians and statists believe in flexible, “discretionary” economic policies; classical liberals believe in set rules.

Economic history proves the superiority of the second approach, but democracy often makes the first more attractive to politicians. After all, in a crisis, people expect their leaders to do something; refraining from action and sticking to abstract principles play poorly to public opinion. As previous recessions demonstrate, however, public pressure for action usually leads to bad decisions that prolong or intensify a crisis. The situation is analogous to what happens on the soccer field when a goalie faces a penalty kick. Statistics show that the goalie should stay in the center of the net to increase his chances of blocking the shot. Yet in most cases, he jumps to the left or right just before his opponent kicks. Why? Because the crowd urges him to act, even though doing so reduces his likelihood of success.
It is nice to see an essay going beyond the usual labels and habit of lambasting based on labels. I think Sorman is focusing on a critical issue that often is overlooked. In any stable system, there is a very high premium on predictability as prerequisite for productivity. Everywhere and through all our recorded history, independent of the perceived fairness of the laws, all those countries with a functioning system of law and cultural habit of placing rule of law above rule of man, there is a clear correlation with increased productivity. When laws are overruled haphazardly and capriciously, you lose predictability and more critically, you lose productivity.

However - No system is inherently stable. Most growth systems follow some form of a sigmoid or S-Curve. At the bottom there is a slow take-up of an idea or opportunity or resource or technology. There are the early adopters, the gamblers. People who end up making a lot of money by being well prepared and taking big risks and being at the right place, at the right time. Then there are the companies that come in and focus on exploiting the steep growth period, focusing on either (or both) efficiency or customer service. Eventually, the idea or technology or product inflects again towards the top of the S-curve. Now is the period of decling returns where all efforts are on efficiency and brand. The market is saturated and it is hard to differentiate from the commodity market competitors.

How long each section of the S-curve lasts depends on context, circumstance and history. Here is what it has looked like for various technologies.

There are some predictable inflection points.

But what happens next? The next S-Curve. You might liken it to Thomas Kuhn's paradigm shift or to Stuart Kauffman's adjacent possible. As you reach the end of one S-curve and have fully exploited all the capabilities of the idea, resource, technology, you have set up the circumstances where it becomes feasible to consider an entirely different S-curve (usually with little capacity to predict the exact course and inclines of the new curve). Horses give way to cars; TVs give way to computer/internet; Books give way to e-readers; etc.

So how about a real world example. Here is what the double S-curve of K-12 education might look like.

So what do S-curves have to do with Sorman's article. Simply this. Increased productivity (success) depends on accurately forecasting where you are on the S-curve and the predictable rule of law is particularly critical throughout the S-curve journey but most especially so at points of transition between S-curves. At the point of transition, you have already a huge burden of risk (new technology, new business processes, new manufacturing plants, new markets, etc.) which are all detriments to making the inevitable transition. If you throw in "discretionary" policies as well or undermine the rule of law, you increase the barrier to transition even higher.

Our policy makers are much more geared towards winning their next election and therefore championing arbitrary "discretionary" policies which almost always fail on their own merits as well as generating negative unintended consequences one of which is the totally unconscious impact on reduced predictability.

The challenge is that all along the first S-curve you absolutely need predictability. However, when you are at the transition point between S-curves, you also absolutely need adaptability (or "discretionary" policies). That is just the nature of the beast.

For example, we are at the transition point between curves for any non-physical cognitive product (books, music, etc.) The copyright rules that made perfect sense for a physical world product of a book or a record no longer work well in a digital world. The law has to adapt.

So we do need both predictability and adaptability but at different times and under different circumstances. The lost productivity occurs when we misapply each response. When we willy-nilly change the rules while we sit on a single S-curve we lose predictability and therefore productivity. When we refuse to make changes at the point of transition between S-curves (often because of regulatory capture, rent seeking and entrenched interests) we also lose productivity by either failing to make the transition or incurring added costs by delaying the transition.

The ultimate challenge is that people, businesses and politicians are usually pretty bad at estimating where they are on an S-curve. There is always noise in the system with short term ups and downs of varying magnitudes. It is quite easy to confuse a short term tactical dowturn in the middle of the curve as an indication that you are actually approaching the top of the curve and beginning to flatten out. So who makes the best estimates of where you are on the S-curve and when to start making risky transition investments? Whoever is closest to the feedback loop and bearing the greatest consequence. This is a classic manifestation of Hayek's problem of knowledge.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I have a suspicion your credit is bent

From The Heinlein Maneuver from Letters of Note. People are generous in many ways, most commonly with their time and their money. Money in particular can be an ambiguous act though. While it usually is the most effective means of ameliorating a problem, it is also quite impersonal.

In the Heinlein maneuver, the author describes an intensely personal, one might say "real" act of generosity which is impressive and sets a standard towards which one can aspire.
I went into a horrible dry spell one time. It was a desperate dry spell and an awful lot depended on me getting writing again. Finally, I wrote to Bob Heinlein. I told him my troubles; that I couldn't write—perhaps it was that I had no ideas in my head that would strike a story. By return airmail—I don't know how he did it—I got back 26 story ideas. Some of them ran for a page and a half; one or two of them were a line or two. I mean, there were story ideas that some writers would give their left ear for. Some of them were merely suggestions; just little hints, things that will spark a writer like, 'Ghost of a little cat patting around eternity looking for a familiar lap to sit in.'

This mechanical, chrome-plated Heinlein has a great deal of heart. I had told him my writing troubles, but I hadn't told him of any other troubles; however, clipped to the stack of story ideas was a check for a hundred dollars with a little scribbled note, 'I have a suspicion your credit is bent.'

It is very difficult for words like 'thank you' to handle a man that can do a thing like that.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

There is a grain of sound theory buried somewhere under that towering mountain of unwarranted assumptions

From The Benefits of Business Experience by Megan McArdle.

An interesting topic that doesn't get much discussion - the contribution of experience to life learning as opposed to academic credentialing.
The increasingly mandarin elite, hygienically removed from the grubby business of scrounging for customers, frequently seems to have no idea at all what goes on in companies. Stop grinning, Republicans; I mean you too. Yes, too many liberals seem to believe that all infelicitous market outcomes can be cured by appointing a commission composed of really top-notch academics--during the debate over health care reform, the words "peer reviewed study" were invoked by supporters with no less touching a faith than an Italian grandmother performing a rosary for the salvation of the godless Communists. On the other hand, here comes the GOP claiming that entrepreneurship can be started or stopped with small changes in marginal tax rates, as if one were turning on and off a light. This is no less of a technocratic fallacy, even if, as with many technocratic fallacies, there is a grain of sound theory buried somewhere under that towering mountain of unwarranted assumptions.

The result is that companies usually get treated as a rather simple variable in a model rather than the complex organizations they are. For example, you see people reasoning from corporate behavior to efficacy: if fast food companies spend a lot of money on advertising, then said advertising must make kids eat more fast food; if hiring managers demand a college degree for positions that didn't used to require one, there must be a good business reason. "They wouldn't do it," says the argument, "if it didn't work."
I take the liberty of broadening her critical statement by a degree: This is no less of a fallacy, even if, as with many fallacies, there is a grain of sound theory buried somewhere under that towering mountain of unwarranted assumptions. I see this all the time - a granular truth serving as the foundation for completely unwarranted conjecture, all presented as indisputable truth.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Though prejudiced against him by party, I felt all the force and charms of his eloquence

From Lord Chesterfield, Letter XCIV in Chesterfield's Letters to His Son.
Describing Lord Bolingbroke:
He engaged young, and distinguished himself in business; and his penetration was almost intuition. I am old enough to have heard him speak in parliament. And I remember that, though prejudiced against him by party, I felt all the force and charms of his eloquence. Like Belial in Milton, "he made the worse appear the better cause." All the internal and external advantages and talents of an orator are undoubtedly his. Figure, voice, elocution, knowledge, and, above all, the purest and most florid diction, with the justest metaphors and happiest images, had raised him to the post of Secretary at War, at four-and-twenty years old, an age at which others are hardly thought fit for the smallest employments.
Would that our public discourse would permit people to more often overcome the prejudice of party and appreciate the charms of their opponents.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The knowledge of the great narrative

Jeffrey Hart, Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe page X.
Goethe is often said to have been the last man to have known his civilization in its totality, that after Goethe things became too complex for anyone to achieve such grasp. Rosenstock-Huessy had a different sort of knowledge and mastery in mind. He meant that the citizen, the product of a genuine liberal arts education, should understand his civilization in the large, its shape and texture, its narrative and its major themes, its important areas of thought, its philosophical and religious controversies, its scientific development, its major works of the imagination. The citizen in this sense need not know quantum mechanics, neutron theory, non-Euclidean geometry, or the details of the twelve-tone scale, but he should know that they are there and what they mean.

This kind of knowledge is the goal of liberal education, the knowledge of the great narrative and other possible narratives, and the ability to locate new things in relation to the overall design, and the ability to locate other civilizations and other cultures in relation to it.

In a democracy such as ours the goal must be to have as many people as possible grasp their civilization this way, because they participate in the governing function either directly or indirectly and because they help to create the moral and cultural tone of the social environment we all share.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who are you, friend?

I love this time-transporting line from Xenophanes.
These are the right questions to ask, in winter around the fire,
As we sit at ease over our wine: Who are you, friend? What is your land?
And how old were you when the Persians came?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

And we were only eighteen men, the most part sick

The publisher Dover does a wonderful job of delivering out-of-copyright texts at affordable prices. I have long rows of their books whose titles and topics are obscure and unlikely to be read but made available at a sufficiently low price that it justifies the acquisition on the off-chance that I will read them. Such is Magellan's Voyage A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation by Antonio Pigafetta. He was a Venetian scholar who travelled with Magellan on his 1519 voyage of exploration which led to the first circumnavigation of the globe. Just. 270 men departed in five ships. 18 men in a single worn out battered ship limped home to Spain.

I find these accounts fascinating. 50,000 years after mankind's departure from Africa, we actually have firsthand accounts of the beginning of the reconnection of the human diaspora.
On Saturday the sixth of September, one thousand five hundred and twenty-two, we entered the bay of San Lucar, and we were only eighteen men, the most part sick, of the sixty remaining who had left Molucca, some of whom died of hunger, others deserted at the island of Timor, and others had been put to death for their crimes. From the time when we had departed from that Bay until the present day, we had sailed fourteen thousand four hundred and sixty leagues, and completed the circuit of the world from east to west. On Monday the eight of September we cast anchor near the Mole of Seville, and there we discharged all the artillery. And on Tuesday we all went, in our shirts and barefoot, and each with a torch in his hand, to visit the shrine of Santa Maria de la Voictoria and that of Santa Maria de Antigua.
Men from a different world.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Too narrow a philosophy to fit the broad reaches of space

I have heard Robert Heinlein referenced numerous times over the years but have never read anything by him. Last summer I purchased an armful of secondhand copies of his books but they were unsuccessful vying with other books that needed to be read.

One of the titles was Double Star which I have just finished. Interesting. I enjoyed it. It reminds me to a small degree of John Wyndham (of Day of the Triffids fame). I don't recall who said it but it was something along the lines of nothing dates so quickly as the past's imagination of the future. There is a bit of that here.

However, a fast paced read, enjoyable, entirely appropriate for children - all good attributes. A couple of quotes:
I decided that the notion could be generalized into any occupation. "Value for value." Building "on the square and on the level." The Hippocratic oath. Don't let the team down. Honest work for honest pay. Such things did not have to be proved; they were an essential part of life-true throughout eternity, true in the farthest reaches of the Galaxy.

I suddenly got a glimpse of what Bonforte was driving at. If there were ethical basics that transcended time and place, then they were true both for Martians and for men. They were true on any planet around any star—and if the human race did not behave accordingly they weren’t ever going to win to the stars because some better race would slap them down for double-dealing.

The price of expansion was virtue. "Never give a sucker an even break" was too narrow a philosophy to fit the broad reaches of space.
and another:
Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong — but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong. Heaven save us from poltroons who fear to make a choice. Let us stand up and be counted.
People don’t really want change, any change at all — and xenophobia is very deep-rooted. But we progress, as we must — if we are to go out to the stars.